Right off of Old Woman Springs Rd. in Flamingo Heights, perched on top of a hill over looking this incredible landscape sits Ryan Schneider's cabin and painting studio.It's a gorgeous day, and exceptionally windy on this hill, we caught Ryan for a studio visit and interview as he is just about to ship off all this work for an upcoming show in March at Gerhard Hofland Gallery in Amsterdam (GerhardHofland.com)
Before we met, I sent a few questions to Ryan, below is what he had to say to those. Listen to podcast to hear the entire studio visit, Ryan talks about his shift from NYC to the Mojave, his spiritual act of painting and his new found patience in his work.
Tell us about where you are from and how you ended up here in Flamingo Heights area?
I grew up outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. Sort of a rural/suburban area but mostly rural where my family and I were. Just acres of woods, a creek, and up the road is just an endless sea of corn fields. I went to school at the Maryland Institute College of Art, so I lived in Baltimore for 4 years- those years are a little fuzzy. Then in 2002 I moved to New York, and never imagined I would live any where else because I loved it so much. Last year my wife Dana and I came out to Joshua Tree for what was supposed to be just a three-month retreat in the desert. We rented a house a few miles down a dirt road, near the back entrance of the park. I was painting outside, she was working and we were just enjoying the silence and nothingness of the desert, hiking, breathing, and sort of recovering from 13 years of intense living in the city. I think it was in March that we started to realize we weren't going back to New York. It was a shocking but titillating idea, and we didn't really tell anyone about it, until our friends offered us the house they were about to move out of in Flamingo Heights. We came to look at the place and as soon as I saw the green studio on the property, I knew we were not going back to New York. We were just seduced by the strangeness and openness out here, and ready for a radical change in our lives. I still love New York and consider it home as well. But now I can love it from a distance and get to work out here with my wife and two orange cats wandering around.
How has the transition to the desert been?
It's been great. At first certain things really weirded me out- like how slow everyone moves and how much small talk I had to make just to get a cup of coffee. I was not used to that. Also how fast everyone drives! I mean, there is a real wildness in Joshua Tree. I didn't fully grasp it until we got here. The intense wind and sun and coyotes howling all night. It was certainly an adjustment, but I love it. At our first place, a desert tortoise used to come and visit me while I painted. You can't experience that many other places. There is a spiritual hum here that I've never felt anywhere else. I think that in this area in particular, the veil to the other realms of consciousness is very thin, you can sort of see the other side on a daily basis. I remember our first full moon here- we were freaking out on how the moon was making us cast these crystal clear shadows on the ground. We were just ecstatic looking at our own shadows. I had not felt that way in a while: child-like, amazed. There is a powerful energy to tap into in New York as well of course, and I tapped into it hard for many years. But I guess I was ready for a different kind of energy, and found it here. However, I do miss great coffee, my artist community, constant art everywhere, great food, and the daily visual candy of the city. New York was very good to me- I think some people probably thought I was crazy for actually moving out here, but it really made perfect sense. Dana and I were already living in the desert in our minds for the last few years in New York. So the transition was pretty seamless.
How do you feel your work has changed (if it has) since being in the desert?
It's changed a lot. Very much. Being out here has also allowed me to refocus on some older motifs and try to make them better, give them the attention they deserve. Basically- the first morning I woke up out here, I stretched a canvas and got to work, and I haven't stopped. There is an openness to the work now that wasn't there before- a freedom, I think. I am less afraid to fail for some reason- so I stumble into new things all the time. I also have like, zero distractions- so I am more patient maybe? I have learned to leave things alone more, allow them to be what they want to be as opposed to what I want them to be- if that makes sense. I'm learning economy as well- like, I don't have to labor and labor over something to think it's finished. Though I do that. I would say that the biggest change I feel is in my self while I paint. I am more present, I am gentler with my self, and as a result the paintings are more present as well. I feel people connecting with them on a deeper level now.
How do you think the landscape here plays in to your paintings?
Very much! I am not a landscape painter, but the landscape has affected me as a person greatly. The wide openness of it, the clarity, the animals running around, and of course the sunsets and stars- all of it finds its way into my work, even if not in an obvious way.
I've spoken about this a lot with a friend of mine out here. The desert is a mirror. It allows you to see your self clearly, as well as things around you. The desert is focused, it's economical. That has affected my work very much. In New York, I would try to cram as much information into a painting as I could- thinking- the more "stuff" in the work, the better it would be. Out here- I've learned that only the things that need to be in a painting should be there. More is not better, it's just more. Every morning I wake up, early, and have a cup of coffee on my porch, overlooking the landscape. Everything is in its place, and it's perfect- the composition is perfect. I know that this clarity has made its way into my paintings, though often times I have to make a big mess and then chip away at it, to arrive at a balanced place. Every painting is different and has different needs. I try to listen to those needs, not impose my own. I feel it's easier out here to allow a painting to be what it wants to be.
Your use of color is fearless, everything is bright and pretty bold. Can you talk about your use of color and pattern in all your work?
I'm not quite sure where it comes from. I did not grow up in a colorful place or a colorful culture, that's for sure. Where I grew up- it's pretty flat and grey. Though in the summer it's incredibly green and beautiful. But I've just always been drawn to bright saturated color. Lately I'm learning to tone it down a little bit, balance it out, etc. Turquoise and pink are my favorite, hands down. They are both probably in every painting. It's just one of those things- when I go to the paint store (Jack Farley's Art Supplies in Yucca Valley www.jackfarleyartsupplies.com), I stand in front of the paints and just let my hand pick what it wants to, and what it wants to pick is bright colors. It's another reason I love living in Flamingo Heights- at sunset the hills are just flaming bright pink~ I wish I could capture it, It's incredible. Another thing about the sunsets out here- after the sun has just gone behind the mountains, the vegetation glows this strange lavender grey. When I first noticed it it blew my mind. It becomes like a lunar landscape of subtle color one doesn't see in other places.
I think there's also an effort in my paintings to make them glow. I really want there to be a sense of light shining out from darkness.
I see a lot of your earlier work dealt pretty heavily with the figure, the more recent work focuses quite a bit on the animal. Can you tell us about that shift in the work?
I still paint the figure- but certainly not as much. I have considered my self a figurative painter since I was 15, but I've tried a lot of other things along the way. But you're right- the past few years there has been a shift. Right now, I am very focused on this tree motif. It just keeps coming back, and I am always trying to make it better. Owls are finding their way into the trees as well. And figures are too, actually. All of it comes naturally- it all seems to choose me rather than me choosing it.
In the end, I think the painting is gazing back at the viewer. The trees are figures, the trees are alive, the owls are people and the people are trees. They are all subjects that come to me, and that have been coming to artists since they painted on cave walls.
My earlier work was very much about "me". My ego, my fears, my "problems", my form. Now my work comes from somewhere else I think- it's of me but it's not about me necessarily. I think it comes from a more universal consciousness now- thus the imagery of a tree, or an owl, or a star; all things man has been seeing since we had eyes to see with. All things man has an intrinsic relationship to, and I have a relationship to as well. I prefer to keep "me" out of my paintings now so that more interesting things can flow in. Most of the work I look at and relate to is figurative in one way or another. But I try to not be attached to the figure in my work- or attached to anything really, at this point.
Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework, and the context in which your work fits in to a larger painting dialogue today?
Hmmm. So many influences. I think by looking at my work one can probably come up with all of them... Matisse, Picasso, Pollack, Kirchner, Hartley, Munch, de Kooning, O'Keefe, Basquiat, Baselitz, Alice Neel, Hockney, William Copley, and most recently, the greatest living painter in my opinion: Chris Ofili. I wish they were more obscure or unexpected but those are just my influences. When I was 15, a teacher showed me the work of Jasper Johns and in that moment I knew I wanted to be an artist. The whole package of an "artist"- live in NY, try to make ground breaking paintings, wear cool clothes, smoke, drink coffee, and have friends that were also artists. This idea tugged so hard on my Indiana heart strings and pulled me to all sorts of places in life. So I guess I should list Johns as well and thank him for showing me at that young age that a life like this is possible.
In terms of contemporary artists, I admire and feel an affinity with- there are so many of those as well. Some are friends and some I admire from afar. Here is a list no particular order: Katherine Bradford, Richard Colman, Van Hanos, Shara Hughes, Katherine Bernhardt, Nina Chanel Abney, Aaron Johnson, Erik Parker, Joshua Abelow, Ted Gahl, Alexander Tovborg, Adrianne Rubenstein, Ben Degen, Gretchen Scherer, Enoc Perez, Austin Eddy, Jennie Jieun Lee, David Armacost, Eddie Martinez, Gina Beavers, Russell Tyler, John Copeland, Mira Dancy, Devin Troy Strother, Ella Kruglanskalya, Brian Scott Campbell, Paul DeMuro, Hope Gangloff, Mark Grotjahn, Ruby Sky Stiler, Trudy Benson, Jason Fox, Lily Ludlow, and Zach Harris. Jeez that's a long list! But I could go on and on. There are many more! I feel truly grateful that from living in NYC for 13 years I got to know so many incredible artists and incredible people- and had the great fortune of showing with them or just visiting their studios.
How does my work fit in to all of this? I have no idea. I don't really feel like I fit in at all and I've become comfortable with that. I spent my twenties being very concerned with "fitting in" or being part of a group of artists. But recently it's become pretty unimportant. I'm just doing what I do because I love it and the deeper I go into it the more it unfolds before me and the more interesting it becomes to me. Of course I want what I do to resonate with people. But if it doesn't, I can't control that. I feel at peace with it these days. I think every artist I listed above doesn't "fit in" either. They've made their own path and followed it. I recently read an excerpt from a talk given by Thomas Hauseago. He's an artist I admire greatly, one of the best in the world I think. I'm paraphrasing but in this talk he said that if the art world is embracing everything you do, you should run the other way. I like that. I think that artists who are sidelined or ignored for a while are fortunate in a way- though it is painful- I know from experience. These artists get a chance to truly develop and dive in to it. And then one day, they hit on it, they arrive at "it", or for whatever reason, people finally see their greatness. Katherine Bradford is the most badass painter around these days. She's 74 years young, and she's on fire. These 26 year olds could learn a lot from looking at her paintings. I learn a lot from looking at her paintings- her show at Canada moved me to tears. That is the kind of path I admire most. I believe that being an artist is a life long process. The work is constantly growing and getting better, and hopefully, more honest, less precious, and more otherworldly.
What’s next for you, anything you are working on in the future you want to share about?
Right now I am finishing up a solo show opening at Gerhard Hofland Gallery in Amsterdam on March 19. The show is called "Speak to Me, Tree".
More images of Ryan's solo show at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica